Helen of Troy is one of Homer’s most fascinating female voices. She is an elusive character who defies any attempts to pin her down. This is demonstrated well in the below scene from the Odyssey. On the surface Helen is a kind host and loyal wife, yet underlying this persona is a sinister portrayal of an inscrutable woman.
The scene takes place in Book 4. Helen is returned to her husband King Menelaus and playing the role of an obedient housewife. Odysseus’ son Telemachus has come to the court of Menelaus to seek information about his father’s whereabouts, who since the Trojan War has vanished from Greece. The group drink together and reminisce about the heroes at Troy, weeping for those who are lost. Helen then does something very curious. She mixes a drug into the men’s wine. It is a drug that removes all sorrow, to the extent that a man’s parents could lie dead in front of him and he would not mourn.
Helen then tells Telemachus a story of an encounter she had with Odysseus at Troy. Odysseus has dressed up as a beggar and snuck into Troy to gather information. His disguise fools everyone but Helen:
‘I alone recognised and questioned him, and he cunningly tried to deceive me. But when I had bathed him, anointed and clothed him, and solemnly sworn not to name him in Troy as Odysseus before he reached camp and the swift ships, he revealed the Achaean plans. And after slaying many Trojans with the long sword he returned to the Argive host with a wealth of information. While the rest of the Trojan women were wailing their grief, my spirit was glad, since my heart was already longing for home, and I sighed at the blindness Aphrodite had dealt me, drawing me there from my own dear country, abandoning daughter and bridal chamber, and a husband lacking neither in wisdom nor looks.’
Helen’s portrayal of herself is extremely flattering; she is Odysseus’ keen ally and, tricked by Aphrodite into leaving, she desperately longs to return to Menelaus. There are however disturbing undertones to the narrative. Odysseus does not trust Helen. He does not reveal his plans until she has sworn that she will not betray him. And rather than initially helping Odysseus, Helen stalls him with questions, taking him inside and effectively removing his beggar’s disguise by bathing him.
Menelaus then has his own story to tell about Helen’s interactions with Odysseus in Troy. The Greeks are hidden in the belly of the wooden horse and have been taken into the city:
‘Then, summoned it may be by some god who thought to hand victory to the Trojans, you arrived, with godlike Deiphobus on your heels. You circled our hollow hiding-place, striking the surface, calling out the names of the Danaan captains, in the very voices of each of the Argives’ wives. Diomedes, Tydeus’ son, and I, and Odysseus were there among them, hearing you call, and Diomedes and I were ready to answer within, and leap out, but Odysseus restrained us, despite our eagerness. The rest of the Achaeans kept silent too, though Anticlus wanted to call out, and reply, till Odysseus clapped his strong hands over his mouth, saving all the Achaeans, and he grasped him so till Pallas Athene led you away.’
This is a chilling scene. Helen can sense something is wrong: she encircles the Greeks, eerily echoing their wives’ voices. It works like a spell, tempting the soldiers to reveal themselves and cry out. Once again the gods are blamed for her betrayal, but whether or not you see Helen as culpable the scene is a striking statement on the power of the female voice.
In both stories Helen is the only one to see through the disguises of Odysseus. She is a match for our hero, and a dangerous one. The second story in particular suggests an intense anxiety about the female voice, and its power to drive men to forget themselves.
With her potions and spells Helen is almost witch-like in the Odyssey. She has achieved with Menelaus what Circe and Calypso tried but failed to achieve with Odysseus. She keeps a man in her thrall with her beauty. Despite everything Menelaus has taken her back, believing that all her actions against him were the fault of an evil god, and she lives as a queen in Sparta. It is however hard for the reader not see a more sinister side to her character, suggested in brief glimpses of her power and hidden questions about her loyalty.
Further reading on the portrayal of Helen in Homer:
‘Siren Songs: Gender, Audiences, and Narrators in the Odyssey‘ by Lillian Eileen Dohert (1995)